After I was terminated, I was told I’d be flown anywhere I wanted to go, so I went to Nepal in order to go trekking on Mt. Everest. I figured that after my trek I could find another ESL job online. The recruiting company flew me first class on Gulf Air, my first flight in such luxury. It must have cost a fortune: small canapés with linen napkins, huge seats, amazing amenities.
Flying into Nepal was total culture shock. All I could see were the tops of filthy shacks. I thought of Dr. Seuss and imagined a giant machine spraying all the dingy brown buildings green, yellow and white and another machine sucking up all the trash. It seemed to be a combination problem from both the Western trekkers and the guide companies. They left oxygen bottles, noodle wrappers, food wrappers, liquor bottles, human feces and animal feces. Of course the view was beautiful, but you didn’t hike in the view. You had to look at your feet so you wouldn’t break an ankle. I found the trash there more depressing than in Kathmandu because it was created by Westerners who had resources and had been educated in environmental stewardship. One trekker from Australia said she hired a guide company because of its statements about being eco-friendly, but she’d seen no evidence of this.
I took a jeep part of the way up Mt. Everest and then a bus into some northern villages. Girls got on and nursed their babies. Passengers brought chickens and bags of rice. There was a guy riding on the outside of the bus and beating on it. People were packed in so they couldn’t breathe. They were sitting on top of each other. Later, when I was on a jeep, the passengers had to get out and push the thing through ruts in the road which were as long as from my knee to the end my foot. Kids came to help us. In Juri and Deepavali I visited schools. I gave a dental lesson to a little nine-year-old. I met a minister in one of the villages who told me about the terrible alcohol problems. Many of the villagers make roxi and chong from local materials. They drink Western brands of whiskey and vodka imported for the trekkers. The “tea houses” which offer accommodation are anything but quaint—very rough construction, toilets in the floor or outdoors. Kerosene lamps. I met a lovely couple from Holland that I chummed around with.
I’d planned to spend three weeks trekking, but I cut it down to seven days, went back to Kathmandu and got a teaching job at a school near the British embassy. Then I’m not clear what happened. When I’d gotten out of a taxi about eight o’clock at night, I had my passport and all my money in a travel pouch which went around my neck, but I thought I’d put it in my purse. My room at the hostel wouldn’t lock. The next morning when I got up to teach my class—and I was being observed that day—I couldn’t find it. I was panic-stricken, but I tried to get through one minute at a time. I taught my class and went back to my room and I tore it apart. So I went to the police station—several police stations—to make a report. They said, “Well, you’ve got to go to your embassy.”
“What? Don’t you understand? I have no money.”
I went back to my room and I tried not to panic or to be overcome with self-pity. I sold my beautiful trekking gear—the sleeping bag, backpack, trekking poles and brand-new hiking gloves I’d bought in Saudi Arabia. I got only enough money to buy some soup, water and bus fare to the embassy.
Since then I’ve met an American who’d traveled widely in Asia. He told me I’d probably been watched. The thieves were so clever they could sneak into your room and lift money, passports, jewelry while you were asleep without being detected. He at least put my confusion to rest regarding what could have happened to my passport and money.
The next day I sent out emails regarding my desperate plight. The loss had occurred on Wednesday night. By Saturday a parent of one of my Singaporean students had wired me a hundred Australian dollars. I picked the money up at Western Union and started looking for cheaper housing in the tourist ghetto called Thamel. I was too embarrassed to tell the people at the school where I worked that I’d lost my passport and my money. I didn’t know these people. How would that affect my standing in the school? But I finally did share my situation. A helpful coworker showed me cheaper housing, which was down a tiny, skinny walkway alley, on the sixth floor of a marble building with no heat and infrequent hot water.
I was teaching only one class and making about $7 a day, but I was paid only half of that until the course was over—an insurance policy for the school owner. Nepal is cheap. The average person lives on $1.25 US a day. You can get water for about a quarter, and you can eat instant noodles, which of course are terrible for you. I found a delicious tofu-spinach soup at a restaurant in Thamel for about fifty cents. For six weeks I didn’t eat meat because it was too expensive. My room was about $3 a day. I’d sleep in all my clothes and my wind-stopper hat. I stuck torn newspaper and cloth in the cracks in the window panes. To stave off the cold the hotel front desk issued guests very heavy, thick comforters which had been covered with white cheesecloth in lieu of sheets. I still had my backpacker’s stove with a propane tank, so I could make instant coffee and soup, and I’d heat up beans. I bought Scottish oat cakes for breakfast. There was a shower on the floor, but sometimes there was hot water and sometimes not, so I’d go two weeks without showering or washing my hair.
Nanglo, a restaurant popular with locals and tourists, had free wi-fi. Every day after class I went there to start job hunting on websites like Dave’s ESL Cafe. A friend in the US kept saying, “Sandra, get out of there.” People I met on Skype wired me money. A man I didn’t know except through friends of friends wired me $90. Another woman paid for my housing. The woman from Singapore bought my passport so that I could continue to look for a job. I just couldn’t believe it. But what would I have done otherwise? The online job search was going nowhere. None of the employers in China or Saudi Arabia wanted to hire out of Nepal. They wanted me to go back to the US and contact them from there. I didn’t know why. My diploma and my master’s and my teaching license hadn’t changed, but I wasn’t getting any job offers.
An Egyptian construction company said they wanted to hire me to do human resources. I’d have to go to Vermont for training. I spoke briefly on Skype with someone from the company. I was thrilled, but some of it didn’t sound right, so I did a search using their peculiar language, and sure enough, it was a scam.
When I went to the US embassy, one of the staff members laughed in my face. “You came to Nepal to look for a job?”
Staff at United States embassies at first seem cold and distant. I’ve discovered they’re actually not. The people working in these facilities have a hard job fortifying the US mission and dealing with daily threats we’re not aware of. Today I follow our embassies in various countries on Facebook. I can’t sufficiently express my gratitude for the help extended to me by the embassy in Kathmandu. The grounds were spectacular, and the embassy had an environmental cleanup day and earthquake evacuation training. I told all the Thamel people I met, “Here, go to the library at the embassy.” Nepalese people can go there to use the library and the computers, and the women can get Korean-made or US-made condoms in the women’s bathroom.
I was told that if the embassy sent me home it could get very expensive and that if possible I should find a family member or friend to buy an airline ticket for me. I couldn’t. They asked for a list of five people, and I gave them the names and contact information for eight friends from the US, China, Singapore, England, Australia and New Zealand. The embassy called all eight. No one could ante up the airfare. So the embassy paid for my flight on US Air from Kathmandu to Indianapolis and gave me money for food en route. They took my passport and issued a seven-day travel passport. I could get my passport back only after I’d repaid the travel loan, plus the interest and fees which accrued when I couldn’t pay it back within thirty days of arrival in the States. It became very expensive.
In the meantime I went to the Boudhanath Stupa shrine and all the monasteries. I meditated. I checked out the Hyatt-Regency and the Radisson to see what those places looked like. At the Radisson, which was close to my school, I could get warm and wash my face in hot water. I visited a hospital and two remote village schools and went to the British embassy for Christmas Eve services. I took a motorcycle ride with a student in the Nepalese army who was tall and handsome. It was very exciting and very dangerous to be riding a motorcycle without a helmet, but I was throwing caution to the winds. I played catch with guests from my hotel who were friends with people who making fires in the streets to stay warm.
I spent Christmas with three young girls who’d paid to come from Switzerland to do volunteer work in one of the orphanages. They gave me some chocolates and a darling card and mittens. I met a woman who worked for the World Bank and another who worked for the Asian Society. I also met a couple of volunteers from Canada who were on their fourth visit to Nepal. This time they’d come to donate water equipment in a village.
The wife said, “Oh, it’s what you’ve come to give that counts,” and I thought I’d given a lot—my passport, my money and my trekking gear.
On January 28th the embassy sent me home. I arrived in Indianapolis broke but grateful to be alive and to see friends I’ve known since school days. Since then I’ve worked grading exams for a testing company, observed a university ESL day for Saudi students and catered a few events at the Children’s Museum. I drove for the Super Bowl 46, a job I’d gotten online with the Wi-Fi at Nangol Restaurant in Kathmandu. To get my passport back I also worked at Mount Rainier, in California, an Arizona dude ranch and an Arizona wooden flute manufacturer. I worked for a feng shui expert, did home health care, worked at the Indiana State Fair and raked leaves.
When I went to get my passport, the Treasury Department employee who waited on me said, “Well, ma’am, it’s taken you over a year to pay this debt.”
I said, “Young man, how dare you try to shame me! I’ve worked twelve jobs in five states in order to repay this loan.” It cost me $1,800 to get a new passport, which I’m using to return to Saudi Arabia to work for an international language school.
Since returning to the States I’ve reflected on my time in Saudi and Nepal. Reflections on God, peace, inner harmony. Most people here have no idea what poverty is. I experienced it initially while having to shore up my inner resolve with each passing day. I don’t know how long I could live with nothing while still feeling positive, hopeful and thankful for each breath, but this experience gave me the opportunity to do it for a bit. As the God-conscious author Joel Goldsmith wrote, “If it isn’t one thing, it’s another.”
Since this interview Sharon and her boyfriend have decided to look for employment possibilities in Oman and Indonesia.